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Valerie J. Grant: Pokies versus Convention Centre

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Few pokie users realise just how manipulated they are by the machine. FIle photo / NZ Herald
Few pokie users realise just how manipulated they are by the machine. FIle photo / NZ Herald

What's at issue in making a final decision on whether or not to offer 500 additional gaming machines in exchange for a bright new convention centre?

Today almost everyone in New Zealand gambles. We buy lotto, scratchies and raffle tickets. We bet on the races or sports competitions. But electronic gaming machines, or pokies, are in a class of their own. Not everyone plays the pokies, and for a good reason.

Most people now know that these highly sophisticated machines with their colourful screens, spinning reels and fancy lights are addictive. And everyone who has studied elementary psychology knows how it's done. The machines are programmed according to basic behavioural laws first described by B F. Skinner and James Watson.

These scientists showed how even pigeons and rats can be conditioned to peck a light or press a lever hundreds of times before being rewarded with a single grain of wheat. They are so addictive animals can die of exhaustion on well-designed behavioural programmes. All humans are susceptible to operant conditioning programmes especially the variable ratio schedules that are used to programme the pokies.

Thus this form of gambling is far more addictive and dangerous than any other.

More than 80 per cent of problem gamblers are addicted to pokie machines, so our budgets for treating problem gamblers would be reduced substantially if this particular form of gambling were to be abolished.

But the relevant issues in the pokies versus convention centre debate do not end here. In discussions about viability and profitability, it's important to discriminate between pokies installed in casinos and pokies installed in bars and clubs.

New Zealand figures indicate the majority of gaming-related problems arise from machines in bars and clubs, where 87 per cent of New Zealand's machines are located. They are disproportionately placed in particularly profitable, low socio-economic areas. Machines are widely but unevenly spread across the country with the highest densities in the neighbourhoods of the most vulnerable.

Few pokie users realise just how manipulated they are by the machine. Pokies come with complex instructions on such things as placement within the gaming room, no windows or other time cues allowed, wheel spin set at less than three seconds and programmes designed to attract specific members of the socio-economic groups that are being targeted.

If they are that bad, why do governments allow them? Because we are all locked into the massive funds generated by the whole system according to a recent report, more than two billion dollars a year. Even after large sums of money have been sent off to the manufacturers and programmers of the machines, there are still big profits.

Of these, one third goes to the government, one third to the venue and one third to the community the hospice or the local football club. Supporters argue that everyone benefits, paying less tax and having better local facilities.

But this is a poisoned chalice. Pokie-generated money robs children of shoes for the winter, breakfast in the mornings, books, computers and money for school trips. The system in general ends up not only contributing to, but locking in, the child poverty we all decry. By consenting to this money-go-round we support a system in which the poor are not only further disadvantaged, but actually pay to support those who are better off.

Hence we might argue it is more important to reduce the number of pokies in bars and clubs than worry about machines in casino settings. If it's true the government's agreement with Sky City means the overall number of pokie machines in bars and clubs will gradually be reduced, the 500 casino-based machines might be seen as a compromise and a move in the right direction.

Increased usage of casino-based pokies may come from wealthy convention goers who will take any gambling problems back home with them when they leave the country.

So perhaps we should say yes to the government's strategy and allow more casino-based pokies in exchange for a convention centre, which all revenue projections indicate will help solve the problem of our national debt.

But why would such a deal have been struck? A deal which, if true, looks as though the pokie machine people are being generous in allowing slow attrition in gaming machines at bar and club level. Further difficulties undoubtedly lie in wait for us. Online gambling may prove particularly suited to internet systems and begin to generate huge profits in the near future.

At present it appears there may be a softeningup process going on whereby the currently unfamiliar gaming websites not only offer big prizes, but provide free online gambling opportunities. As soon as people are hooked on these however, they may well change to revenue-producing sites, and there will then be an even larger number of hard-earned New Zealand dollars flowing off-shore, eliminating both tax revenues and community benefits.

Perhaps our forebears were not so stupid after all to assert that gambling was evil.

* Valerie J. Grant has a PhD in psychology and is an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Auckland.

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